Tuesday, 29 December 2009

“Power Distance” and Innovation

In his recent book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the role that “Power Distance” has played in a whole series of air disasters. Basically, the real problem in each case was not equipment failure, but communication failure - usually the inability of subordinates (such as the first officer) to tell the Captain clearly that he was screwing up.

Power Distance is a concept developed by Geert Hofstede as a result of years of research into management relationships around the world. It measures the extent to which less powerful managers feel they can challenge and confront more senior managers.

At one extreme are highly consensual societies, such as the Nordic countries, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, the Netherlands, Israel, the USA, Britain and Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. In these countries it’s expected that managers should and do speak up clearly to their superiors when there’s a problem (or an opportunity).

In the mid-range are many central and southern European countries (including France and Belgium, Italy, Spain and Portugal, the Czech Republic and Hungary), plus several in South-East Asia (Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan). In these countries a manager may think twice before challenging.

Up towards the autocratic end are China, India, Russia, Singapore, Korea and the Philippines, many of the Islamic countries (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Iraq, Indonesia, with Malaysia at the very top of the list), and several in Latin America (Mexico, Brazil among them). In these cultures a manager often feels best advised to keep his/her mouth firmly shut rather than rock the boat.

Of course, Power Distance has a profound influence on innovation. For example, if a senior manager in a country with a high score pours cold water over a new idea, it’s far more likely to be fatally damaged. This makes the development of breakthrough new products, new strategies, new ways of working far trickier. And techniques like open brainstorming, which can work so well in an open climate, are nowhere near so useful or effective. Participants often prefer to hide rather than speak up.

Over the years I’ve had to discover by trial and error innovation practices that work better in high Power Distance societies. But it’s never easy!

Have you discovered techniques that work well?

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Étonne-moi, Jean!

Commissioned to write a new ballet, the French writer, Jean Cocteau, asked Serge Diaghilev, the great Russian impresario, what was the brief? “Étonne-moi, Jean!” was Diaghilev’s instant response. “Astonish me!”

The eventual result was Parade: music by Satie, choreography by Massine, designs by Picasso, scenario by Cocteau. (What a team.) The first cubist ballet, it was also the birth of surrealism. Parade was premièred by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris in 1917, causing general shock and amazement.

I rather doubt that Charles Saatchi knew this line when he was briefing creatives in his ad agency – he wrote recently that he doesn’t care for ballet - but that was exactly the core message that constantly permeated his business in its palmiest days.

So what’s the point? Whatever business you’re in – whether it be ballet or advertising, or banking or beauty, if you want real, breakthrough creativity, find and hire some VERY talented and creative people (amongst the conscientious and reliable ones) – and challenge them to ÉTONNE you. And listen attentively and open-mindedly when they do just that.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Harmony or conflict: which is more productive?

Is it better to have harmony or conflict in innovation teams?

A thrilling and very personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory in the early 1950s, James Watson’s The Double Helix makes clear the high levels of interpersonal conflict that existed over the period of trial and error that led up to the eventual breakthrough by Watson and Francis Crick. Both of them had seemingly continuous rows with the brilliant crystallographer, Rosalind Franklin, and her boss at King’s College in London, Maurice Wilkins. And Franklin and Wilkins were themselves barely on speaking terms throughout.

A good part of the enmity stemmed from the fact that they were all racing towards the same goal, each wanting to cross the finishing line first. In the event all the main players except Franklin, who died tragically young, won Nobel prizes for their work.

Would it have helped them to solve the problems more effectively if the boss of the Cavendish at the time, Sir Lawrence Bragg, himself a Nobel laureate, had provided the kind of leadership whereby this group of powerful but polarised intellects might have come to value and respect each other more? Or if Watson and Crick, both mavericks themselves, had had higher levels of personal maturity in dealing with colleagues constructively? Both were relatively young men, Watson only twenty-four years old at the time of the breakthrough.

My sense is that Bragg was not the finest of leaders. In fact, at one stage, unable to deal with the brash noisiness of his two most brilliant scientists, he forbade them to work on DNA and on model-building, a key part of their work. Of course, they carried on regardless - and Bragg himself made the initial public announcement of their success.

Many believe that Watson and Crick’s discovery of the double helix was the most important advance in biology since Darwin. If you haven’t read it already, I thoroughly recommend The Double Helix - quite the most exciting and spontaneous description of the triumphs and tragedies involved in major scientific discovery, with lots of learning for everyone involved in innovation.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Metaphor and the Art of Naval Warfare

Did you see Peter Weir’s film Master and Commander? It’s a great favourite of mine, as are several of Weir’s movies.

Having left the Galapagos Islands, where the ship’s surgeon, Maturin, and young Midshipman Blakeney have collected armfuls of newly discovered species (and spotted the enemy – the British ship is being pursued in the South Atlantic by a larger, better-armed French frigate). Maturin and Blakeney show the skipper, Jack Aubrey (brilliantly played by Russell Crowe), what appears to be a twig. It is in fact a phasmid, “an insect that disguises itself as a stick in order to confuse its predators,” says young Blakeney.

Intrigued, Aubrey conceives the idea of re-dressing his British warship as a harmless whaler, a “nautical phasmid”, luring the enemy into a trap. “I had no idea that a study of nature could advance the art of naval warfare,” says Aubrey.

Metaphors such as this are often the springboard for breakthrough ideas. As the Spanish philosopher, Ortega y Gasset puts it: “The metaphor is probably the most fertile power possessed by men.”

Do you have favourite ones that have led to Eureka moments?

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

The Pursuit of Perfection

The problem is this: if you wait till it’s perfect, first of all, you’ll never get there. And you’ll get beaten to market by a competitor.

For goodness sake, what’s perfect? If we demanded perfectly safe airplanes, we’d be sailing in ships. In point of fact, the Wright Brothers would never have taken off. If we wanted ships that never sank, we’d never leave harbour.

The real question is: when have we reached a threshold of acceptability? When that point has arrived, try it out, learn and adapt.

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

Do you have experience of losing out in this way?

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Walkabout Verdi

Aside from silly and often irrelevant productions posing as creative, opera has not been noted for innovation in recent times. So what joy Graham Vick’s powerful new production of Verdi’s Othello in Birmingham.

Staged in a disused inner city factory. No seats, no shoes. Surrounded (it turns out) by actors and singers, it blasts off with the great storm and the arrival of the conquering hero in our midst. And before long, we are all dancing in cheerful circles.

Given that nowadays real black Othellos are the rule in the “legitimate” theatre, rather astonishingly Vick’s production has not only the first operatic black Othello, but also a black Iago, and is set in a contemporary, unidentified African state.

It’s an overwhelming experience. You can read my more extended review of it in Opera Britannia by clicking on the link below right.

What’s your experience of innovation in opera and theatre these days?

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

In Praise of Lists

The Italian writer, Umberto Eco, has curated an exhibition for the Louvre in Paris of lists. Of lists? “The list is the origin of culture,” says Eco, citing Homer, Thomas Mann and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

A personal favourite of mine are the lists in the extraordinary travel books of Patrick Leigh-Fermor. The Argentinean poet and essayist, Jorge Luis Borges, lists his special pleasures as: “Hourglasses, maps, eighteenth century typography, etymologies, the taste of coffee and Stevenson’s prose.” In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the king lists the names of the French and English dead, ending with plain Davy Gam, Esquire. Early in the Bible we encounter the Ten Commandments, and later the Beatitudes. Buying a CD or book or DVD, we get the help of Google to present us with a list of options.

And lists are at the core of effective work, as we sort out the important and the urgent each day from amongst the dozens of jobs competing for our attention. This is especially important in innovation projects, where things can inadvertently come off the rails at any moment.

But there is always a struggle - every day, every hour - between the important and the urgent, where the latter seems so often to drive out the former.

How do you deal with this problem?

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Betting the bank: not such a great idea

When Coca-Cola had the result of a blind taste test for New Improved Coke involving 200,000 consumers, it clearly indicated to the company that they should launch – and massively support – the new formulation. And that’s exactly what they did.

That’s most probably what I would have done too. And if you are honest, so would your organisation, faced with apparently overwhelming consumer preference.

Of course, we all now know that it was the greatest marketing blunder in living memory. The question is: how could (and should) they have handled it differently?

My own view is that they should have area-tested the whole new mix – product, packaging, promotion, advertising, pricing etc – in a discrete part of the USA and learned from the response in reality of consumers, while at the same time gauging the counter-attack of Pepsi. That way they would have limited the downside risk dramatically.

Many years ago, I worked on P&G’s Fairy Snow brand when it was a fairly distant follower of the great Persil in the British washing powder market. These two brands were the only remaining “heavy duty” soap powders on the market, all other brands having switched to be synthetic detergents. Unilever wanted to switch Persil to be a detergent brand too. They knew that this would give consumers clearly better results in their wash. And research showed that consumers massively preferred the new detergent-based product.

Just as with Coke, the company did not anticipate the effect of the strong emotional attachment that consumers felt for their existing, “kinder”, soap-based brand.

But here’s the difference: unlike Coke, the company did not immediately go national with their hot new formula, they test-marketed the whole thing in an area with no more than 5% of the UK’s population. P&G and Fairy Snow came back with a hard-hitting “we’re your only soap powder now” campaign – and Persil started to lose share immediately, hand over fist. At least in this case Unilever had limited their exposure and were able to go back to the mix that was tried and true.

However confident they are of success, I always advise clients not to bet the bank on their current hot innovation, but to try it out and be prepared to move fast, one way or another, when they have genuine market-place response.

Not to bet the bank: hmmm…maybe it’s not just a metaphor these days.

Do you have experience of this issue? What are your own learnings?

Friday, 4 December 2009

The two stages of childhood

Discussing my seven year old and her process of growing up with my colleague at City University, Kristine Karlsen:

“There are two stages to child development,” said Kristine. “First we teach them to walk and talk. Then we teach them to sit down and be quiet.”

This seems to me the pithiest and most devastating of summations. It tells us so much about why children emerge into adulthood with their creative faculties diminished. And why too often we need to have that side of us re-awakened later in life.

I have been thinking a lot recently about the lack of creativity in our British education system and I have some ideas about it.

But what do you think?

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The leadership of innovation – different?

The leadership of innovation teams – is it different in any way from leadership more generally?

Two things that are critical to success in innovation are: first, creating with your team a clear sense of direction and impetus; and second, maintaining a climate of possibility, supportive of speculation, creativity and problem-solving.

But aren’t those exactly the qualities you’d want in any leader? Does a climate of criticism and fear ever help the performance of a team, except maybe in the very short term?

In a recent Youth of Today survey, British teenagers have amongst their chosen Top 10 leaders celebrity businessman Sir Alan Sugar, X-Factor judge Simon Cowell and sixteenth century British king, Henry VIII. To be honest, I wouldn’t want to be in their teams, any of them. And what’s more I wouldn’t want them in mine.

Who would be your ideal leaders of innovation?

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Secrets of Followership

A very experienced American colleague, Marvin Smith, suggested we talk about “followership”. “What?” we chorused. “What’s all that about, Marvin?”

“Well everyone talks about leadership,” he responded, “and the bookstores are stacked high with a continuous stream of new books on that subject. But when they teach leadership, they hardly ever touch on followership.

“In fact, outside of religion, no one ever seems to talk about followership. There are hardly any books or training courses. But, without followers, there are no leaders. It’s as simple as that.

“So what makes a good follower?” he asked us.

We spent a memorable hour springboarding thoughts and ideas and developing some ideal characteristics and behaviours. We realised quickly that we all need to be leaders and all followers in different situations. I personally committed to learning and growing as a follower and as a leader. One thing I would say is that good followership is clearly not about uncritical servitude.

What for you makes an outstanding follower?